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Topic Title: Professor Richard Gregory, 1923-2010
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Created On: 15/06/2010 10:59 AM
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 15/06/2010 10:59 AM
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In memory of Professor Richard Gregory
By Dr Peter Thompson, University of York

Richard Gregory, CBE, D.Sc., FRSE, FRS, Emeritus Professor of Neuropsychology died peacefully on 17 May 2010 at the Bristol Royal Infirmary, after suffering a stroke. His family and close friends were in attendance.

Richard's father was Christopher Clive Langton Gregory, an astronomer and the first Director of the University of London Observatory. He had been First Assistant of the National Observatory of Egypt and for two years was the official observer of the moon. Upon seeing the sliver of the new moon he would telephone the king, which event would signal the beginning of Ramadan. As a young boy Richard would look through the telescope in his father's observatory and wonder, not only about worlds far away, but also why the stars appeared to flicker as he looked at them. Richard's family was perhaps a little eccentric, lending credence to the view that eccentricity has an hereditary component. How many of us sport a scar inflicted by our grandmother's pet monkey or can recall their parents dressing up and enacting Abdul Abulbul Amir in the middle of the night in the ruins of Tintagel castle.

Leaving school in 1941, Richard joined the RAF Signals Corp and when the war was over, he was given the task of explaining the technicalities of radar and communication systems to the general public while standing in a bomb site in Oxford Street. This attracted some 4 million visitors in six months, and clearly triggered his interest in problems of target detection and communication, as well as the ability to communicate these complex issues in an engaging manner.

In 1947 went up to Cambridge to read Moral Sciences. Here he studied Experimental Psychology under Sir Frederic Bartlett and, on graduating, joined the Applied Psychology Unit in Cambridge. By 1958 he was a lecturer in the Department of Experimental Psychology While at Cambridge Richard wrote the book that many of us would most like to have written, 'Eye and Brain'. Generations of students in Psychology have read this book and have succumbed to its infectious enthusiasm. It is still going strong in its 5th edition. To call it a text book on visual perception is not to do it justice. I recommend it to my students as a damned good bed-time read. The success of this book was swiftly followed by an invitation to present the 1967 Royal Institution Christmas Lectures. These were televised by the BBC for the first time in colour and subsequently published as 'The Intelligent Eye', a book sadly now out of print!

By the time Richard left Cambridge he had a string of successful research projects, inventions and publications behind him. He had investigated possible perceptual problems for astronauts on behalf of the United States Air Force, invented a telescope camera which minimised the effects of atmospheric turbulence - and he had embarked on what was to become a long and completely vindicated crusade to persuade many visual scientists that an understanding of seeing would require study of the visual system's software as well as (perhaps even rather than) the system's hardware.

In 1960 he founded the international journal Perception, a leading academic journal which is unusual in that it has an editorial essay in each issue. The vast majority of these were written by Richard and every one of those was a mine of information, always thought-provoking, and often rather quirky.

Together with Donald Michie and Christopher Longuet-Higgins, Richard now set up the Department of Machine Intelligence and Perception at the University of Edinburgh and served as the Department's Chairman from 1968 to 1970. Things did not go entirely smoothly in Edinburgh; the premises the University earmarked for the fledgling department were an abandoned church. The proposal that a Department of Machine Intelligence should be set up on such a site proved too much for the church authorities who clearly felt that machine intelligence was but another name for Satanism. The out-cry was such that the plans were abandoned and alternative accommodation found.

Richard's stay in Edinburgh was not a long one. Chastened by his experience with the Church, he eschewed offers of Chairs in Universities that 'would be building state-of-the-art psychology laboratories in the very near future' and accepted an offer made by a very smart University of Bristol, of extensive space in their Medical School. Here Richard really made his home and his achievements were many.

Many of his brilliant ideas and inventions found their way in one form or another to the first Hands-on Science Centre in this country - the Exploratory in Bristol. Richard was very much the moving force of the project and over 200,000 children and adults visited the Exploratory each year when it was housed in the old Engine shed at Temple Meads station. This later moved to become Explore@Bristol.

Richard 'retired' in 1988 but of course he never stopped working, and remained at his desk until a few days before his death. He became a Fellow of the Royal Society and received that Society's Faraday Medal. He remained dedicated to promoting the importance of presenting science to the public, whether by transforming Herstmonceux Castle into a public Science Centre, as a member of the BBC Science Consultative Group or by serving on the Royal Society's Committee on the Public Understanding of Science. He was still actively engaged in research and was still writing - his last book 'Seeing and Illusions - Making Sense of the Senses' was published last year.

Those of us who had the privilege of knowing Richard will remember his unflagging enthusiasm, his unquenchable curiosity and his sense of fun. Richard had a love of bad puns; on one of the last occasions that I saw him I asked him if I could get one of the slides he had used in a lecture and put it on my memory stick. "Memory stick" said Richard, "I think I've got memory stuck!" And then that wonderful laugh.....

Dr Peter Thompson
University of York

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